A conversation with Anna

A conversation with Anna
From Vol. 1 No. 5, 1999

Every once in awhile I wander down to the Cock’n Bull after work for a few beers with Jay Gallagher. Every time I’m astonished as to the whole scene going on in that bar. There’s every kind of person you can imagine in there: teenage Dawson students with piercings all over, portly baby-boomer barflys, slackers like me & Jay, blue collars, white collars, black folks, white folks, grey-hairs and spiked-hairs.

The decor and the beer is British; the kitchen is Chinese; the weekly band is a blues band. And everyone seems to know each other. Whenever I go in there with Jay he has to say hi to a dozen people in the place before we grab a table.
I’ve long meant to take a tape recorder down and get some of the stories this immensely varied bunch of folks have to offer, especially after hearing so many of them during our nights of drinking there. This time I did have a recorder on me, and after regretting not pulling out while listening to Herman, a Vietnam draft-dodging Dawson teacher who regularly goes down to Mexico to “chase the ghost of Pancho Villa,” I finally pulled it out while we chatted with Anna. (I’m hoping to interview Herman for the next issue, though.)
Jay spotted Anna at her usual spot at around 11, and invited her over to our table. She’s a fine-looking mature woman originally from Nova Scotia. After introducing us she was quite the flirt I must say, holding onto my arm and squeezing it from time to time. I don’t know how many drinks she’d had, but I figure it must have been a fair amount. Being 84 years old, she must have quite a tolerance to the stuff by now.
Here’s some of what we yelled to each other while the Big Bat Blues Band chugged away in the background.
Anna: We used to pass notes in school, you know, to the boys. When we were schoolgirls. Do you know what the teacher would say? She would say, ‘I saw you pass June the note. Give it to me, I want to read it’. Do you know what it would say? Here’s one.She writes this down & shows us:
“I love you much, I love you mighty
I wish your pyjamas were close to my nightie
Now don’t get excited, don’t get misled
I mean on the clothesline, but not in the bed”
Anna: And you know what—She’d make us go sit in the corner for about twenty minutes.
Louis: Together?
Anna: No!
L: It doesn’t sound so bad if you get sent to the corner together for twenty minutes. Then again if the teacher’s watching. (pause) When would this have been, more or less, that you would’ve passed this as a note?
A: Oh… we must’ve been in grade seven or eight. I almost got expelled because I wrote this and handed it to the fella.
L: To the fella?
A: Yeah, to the fella in school. We were kids havin’ fun. The teacher said “What’s the matter with you kids?”
L: And what was the matter with you kids?
She pauses to write a second one out & recites it to us:
“Never dink your dicky
When the weather is hot and sticky
But when the frost is on the pumpkin
That’s the time for dinky dunkin’”
L: Now where did you pick that up back then?
A: Oh we made them up in school.
L: Ah, you see school was good for something.
Jay: Anna, what brings you to the cock n’ bull.
A: Because I only live across the street.
J: Anna, how many years have you been smoking cigarettes?
A: Well, I only started when I was about thirty years of age. And you know what? I took two or three puffs of a cigarette, and I had to hold on to the wall, and hold on to the chair, because…
L: You got a nicotine buzz!
A: Yes! And now, they don’t have that effect anymore.
L: What, did they change the cigarettes?
A: Well, no! We’re just addicted to the damn things.
L: So it doesn’t have the same effect anymore.
A: No. So I’m gonna give them up.
J: Anna, what do you think about, like, 56 year olds who start smoking?
A: They’re all smoking today. But not when we were…
J: Well you know the legal age, to be able to buy cigarettes you have to be like 54.
A: What?
L: He’s pulling your leg again. So, what year did you come to Montreal in? ‘Cause I’m a born and bred Montrealer, and I have a lack of history somehow.
A: You’re from Montreal.
L: Yes, and so are my parents. So you’ve been here what, forty years you say? Fifty years? That would bring it to like what, the forties?
A: It was different then. I came here because the wages were good. I did my nursing down home at the Sydney Hospital. And then I came to Montreal.
L: And you kept nursing here? At the Royal Victoria?
A: Yes.
J: Did you find that the food in the hospitals here was not up to par?
A: The food? Oh, it was good.
J: I heard that the food gave a lot of patients gas, and one day Montreal almost exploded.
(She looks at him like he’s kind of crazy.)
A: Back then you didn’t have to write a special exam to be a nurse in Quebec.
L: They don’t think you’re good enough coming from Nova Scotia?
A: No, they just changed the law.
L: But you got to Quebec before all that crap happened. I assume there was harmony, I don’t think french people were having fights with english people back then.
A: Oh no.
L: I never believed that myself.
A: That was the time when we made the money. Then I went on private duty, twenty dollars an hour.
L: No! Really? As a nurse?
A: We made nine hundred, seven days a week, when I went on private duty. Nine hundred and sixty dollars a week! But at that time, we used to pay a lot of income tax.
L: Now this would’ve been the fifties I guess.
J: Was prostitution big during this time? In Montreal? It was pretty big, eh?
A: Oh, yeah. All the boys used to go to the, uh, down at the Main, it’s not there anymore, the prostitutes would be hangin out the windows, and you’d go up and it only cost $2, to go to the prostitute. And all the men used to go there.
J: $2?!? For everything? Wow…
A: And the Gay Lantern Theatre was down there. But all that is changed now.
J: Do you ever wish you had a time machine, so you could go back in time and change things?
A: Oh, we had wonderful times. The men, at that time, after we finished work, they’d be waiting for us, they’d take us to Chinatown, and eat, and we’d get treated, but it was different, you know, then. Because today, a girl pays her way, and a man pays hers. But before, the darling men, the boys, they treated us and they took us back home. And they never wanted to get fresh with you.
J: They weren’t fresh?
A: Oh no. They never wanted to take you to bed and that. My girlfriend and I, we’d wander around til seven in the morning. And that was when we had those streetcars, and you had to hold on to the straps, you know. And everybody was going to work, you know, the working people. My girlfriend and I and two other girls, we were laughing on the bus. And Margaret said, Oh I missed my Mother of Mary program! That was on at six o’clock in the morning.
L: On the radio?
A: That’s right. And you know what? We took our showers, get ready to go to work after being up all night.
J: Ah, you were what they would call in today’s terms, party animals.
A: I don’t know how we could do it, stay up all night, then go to work in the morning.
L: Now how is it that you would stay up all night but the boys would not manage to get you… uh… to bed or something. What were you doing all night then, drinking?
A: Well we didn’t do it every night. They would take us down to Chinatown to eat, and we had a lot of fun at the Gay Lantern.
L: Was Chinatown in the same place back then, off St. Lawrence there?
A: Yes… it wasn’t so crowded back then though.
J: That’s because they multiply.
L: So they would take you out to dinner in Chinatown, and then what, you’d go dancing?
A: No dancing, no.
L: Was this in the days before the big bands and stuff?
A: Yeah. They had lovely Chinese restaurants on Stanley. Thirty cents a meal! You got soup, and the Chinamans were good cooks, you’d get your roast beef, and it was tender. Pork chops, anything you wanted, all your lovely vegetables, dessert, milk coffee or tea. Thirty cents!
L: But then you would eat the meal, but then what would happen?
J: Anna… Anna… of all the changes in the world within the past, like, forty years, to you, what is the most prominent, is it, is it the strap-on, is it, is it the Challenger explosion,
L: The Challenger explosion!?!
J: … or is it the… the open salad bar?
(silence from Anna.)
J: All the changes, were they for the better or were they for the worse? Or does that even matter? (more silence.)
L: Is there a general… are there ultimately some things that don’t change at all? Cause I’m starting to think some things just don’t change, but- some things have changed.
A: Well, the world is changing. There has to be a change. Because if you people read your Bible, this is all in the Bible, about the changes that took place. And it’s all in the Bible that um, just in the years since I read it, it said in forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years, there’ll be all these diseases that never happened before. Like AIDS and uh, aneurysms. But now… (pause)
L: Now where does it end, are we very close? Because the Bible says that in about a year, there’ll be some kind of major change…
A: There’s going to be a big change, I don’t know what it’s going to be. All these things that never happened… My father was a good for lots of (unintelligible.)
L: Your father was a good-for-nothing?
A: No!!! My father was a good philosopher!
L: Oh, OK.
A: You should hear what he said. He said “Yeeears from now, people are gonna be wearing rings in their noses and in their belly buttons…”
L: Really? When did he say this?
A: Well, when we were children.
L: Which would’ve been a long time ago…
A: Well, of course.
L: He said that, exactly?
A: Well, he knew that. He was a very clever man. He was an engineer, an engineer in Prague, Czechoslovakia. And we moved here in the mid-twenties.
L: And he said there would be piercings?
A: Of course. And sure enough—it was true.
L: Did he say why?
A: Well he passed away before all this goddamn crap happened.
J: Before he could get a Prince Albert…
L: But you see, they don’t even exactly know why they’re getting piercings, although your father might’ve known…
A: Well even the men now are doing it on the scrotum…
L: And worse places too… And there’s not much worse places either.
J: I have one of them. Wanna see it?
(she doesn’t believe him. It’s not true.)
A: Where did Herman’s beer go?
J: When you walk around outside now on the streets of Montreal, are you happy with the way things are going?
A: Well, it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t bother anybody. But it’s so crowded now.
L: It wasn’t crowded back then?
A: We loved walking around Sherbrooke St.
J: Can you imagine having this lady as a grandmother?
L: Well yeah, because I don’t have any other grandmother. If my last one was alive today she’d be 104. So you used to walk down Sherbrooke St.?
A: My girlfriend and I, we loved walking along Sherbrooke St.
L: I guess that was a good street, then, to be seen on.
A: Oh yes. Not too many people. And a squad car came around.
L: Oh. Now was that a motor car?
A: Oh yeah, and they were lovely. Big roaring motor not like they have now. Probably it would look very big now. And you know what? They stopped the car, and Florence said, Anna they want us to get in! Because they were smiling at us. So we got in. And they took us to a place on Notre Dame Street! And in a private booth up there.
L: A bar?
A: Well, yeah they were selling drinks there. But private. So we went with them, and we sat in the bar upstairs, and they treated us to drinks and everything. And they were men in their forties or fifties you know, we were younger of course. But we had a good time with them. Then we had steaks, nice charcoal broiled steaks. But my god, they were out, looking to pick…
L: Pick up a girl…
A: Of course! And they were in uniform.
L: So they were on duty and everything.
A: Well I suppose so.
L: But you didn’t see them stopping any crimes while you were with them, I guess.
A: No. No no no. This was a private club.
J: Anna, what about coloured men?
A: Oh… we used to go down to a place on Field Street, the street had a different name then. And a coloured fellow used to play the piano there, he’s dead now, I forget his name. And we nurses used to drop in there. But it wasn’t crowded the way these places are now. And we were… at that time we shied away from coloured people. And he was a very prominent pianist, they had a big funeral for him when he died. I forget his…
L: Was it Oscar Peterson?
A: Oh yes, of course! And we loved his music. But we nurses used to go there, about six or seven of us. But there were very few outsiders then.
L: Outsiders being white people, I guess.
A: Yes. Because people didn’t go out there to drink in those days.
J: Anna, what would’ve happened if you would’ve married a black man, or an Asian man…
A: Well, today it’s mixed. I had, well, Oscar Peterson, big muscles, I was nursing back then at, used to be the Montreal General, now it’s the Children’s. And I had Oscar Peterson as a patient. And I couldn’t find a johnny shirt for him. So I had to get the scissors and cut one for him. And you know what?
L: What?
A: We used to shy away from the coloured people (she says it with shame.) And I had Rufus, Rufus Rockhead. (Famous Montreal club owner, owned Rockhead’s Paradise.) At the Royal Vic. And I was afraid to spend too much time with him, and talk to him. So I’d say “Oh Hi Rufus.”
L: Why, people would think differently of you if you talked to him too long?
A: (shamefully) Yeaah. And he had a daughter. And she wanted to go in training. And they wouldn’t allow coloured people in their hospital. That’s how the world changed now! Then they let all the white nurses go from the Royal Vic, they lost their job, they got demoted, they used to be head nurses! Because, they didn’t have french, some of them.
L: Oh!
A: Ohhh! (nodding & shaking her finger.) And oddly enough the ones that did all came in from Haiti. So they took them, and they were head nurses on the floor, and the nurses who were all working for years as head nurses, they got demoted and had to go on floor duty. And the coloured girls took their jobs.
L: So it went too far the other way.
A: Oh yes.
L: Ah, but you see what’s funny now is that they’re all screwed, nurses of any colour, are being either fired or overworked from budget cuts.
(Anna starts coughing, and we talk about the flu going around.)
A: I’ve been talking too much.
L: I much appreciate you talking, though, thank you. Like I say, I don’t feel I know enough about the old days.
A: Well, the time have changed. We were getting five dollars an hour. And that was a lot of money!
L: That’s more than I made at my first job!
A: Forty dollars a day. And you know what, you could do a lot with that money. Our rents were cheap. At that time, we lived in rooming houses. But today, they did away with the rooming houses. But at that time we rented a lovely, lovely room, with room and board. And we’d all eat dinner at night.
L: You’d eat together?
A: Oh yes. And when the food came out it was piled with food, you could eat all you want. And all home cooked. Home cooked!
L: Now what was a good meal then?
A: Well, for five dollars, a week, we got our room, and breakfast, and dinner at night.
J: Did you have any crazy people there? Crazy people, people with problems?
A: No!
J: No insane people?
A: Oh, you mean the mental people in Verdun? No. No.
L: Now where was a good place, where did people live… now today we call it Old Montreal, but back then it must’ve just been Montreal. I’m not even that old, not even thirty, but I remember when I was a kid, going to the Port before it was the Old Port, it was all run down, with shady hotels catering to the sailors and everything…
A: You know, kids today, they don’t know anything about what they are. But we used to have good times, I’m telling you.
L: Well obviously if you were staying out all night then going to work. Now what happened with those policemen you started telling us about, you didn’t finish the story.
A: Oh well, back then it was not like today. But in those days when we were in Montreal, they knew we were from out of town, and they were lovely, they treated us like, you know, when we got in the car with them they were nice. And we made friends with them. We had dates with them, when they were in civilian clothes. But today it’s not that way.
L: Today you usually sleep with them first.
A: And you know what? You got your room and board, Mrs. Waffers used to run the place.
L: Where was this place?
A: Right over there, the next street, away from here, it wasn’t de Maisonneuve back then, it was St. Luke’s street. And she would do all our laundry, because they had no laundromats back then. She had a washing machine, operated by hand. When you were rooming, you couldn’t do your own laundry. But we used to bring our uniforms to the Chinaman.
L: Yeah?
A: Oh yeah, he’d starch them up for us nicely you know, and they were cheap, thirty cents. He’d pick them up, carry them off over his shoulder. You gave them a twenty-five cent tip, they were happy.
L: Now what about St. Lawrence Boulevard back then? I find it funny that today it’s the hip place for young people to go to. When I was a kid St. Lawrence was a place where there were the Jewish communities…
A: Well then, you see how it’s changed. I remember when there was a beautiful part of it there, and you’d walk along on a Sunday afternoon and it was just wonderful. They didn’t have all these restaurants like they have today. We’d take a stroll, and we used to go to Fletcher’s Field.
L: People would go to Fletcher’s Field (Jeanne Mance Park) on Sunday afternoons?
Anna: Oh yes. (Incidentally, people still go on Sundays today, but there’s lots of hippies & and it’s called “the tam-tams.”)
L: What was it on St. Lawrence back then? Were there stores and things?
A: No there were no clothing stores or anything like that. (She looks confused at me being confused about picturing St. Lawrence without stores.) There were lots of lovely people lived there, in lovely houses, they’re all torn down now for all these restaurants.
The tape ran out right about there, but Anna went home soon afterwards anyway. It was after midnight. I asked her for her phone number, thinking I’d love to keep interviewing her someday. She was very happy to give it to me, being quite flattered at having a young man like myself ask for her number. I promised I’d call her the following week, but never did, as I got so busy with work and Fish Piss and stuff as always. Jay said he saw her the week after and she was disappointed that I hadn’t called. It broke my heart to think I might have broken her heart, but I promised myself I will call her once this issue is finished.
You know, people our age don’t hang around enough with our older neighbors. It’s a lot more fun than you’d think, and you can learn a hell of a lot from it too.